Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 160 / JANUARY 1994 / PAGE 115

Building the ultimate game machine. (includes list of computer games and advice for game playing) (personal computer)
by Paul Schuytema

Your face is washed in green from the infrared sensors; all around it's dark, silent except for the rhythmic whooshing of your rotor blades. Your left hand pulls back on the collective, increasing the lift of your Comanche helicopter. Your right hand thumbs your view left, then right; and the chopper lifts slightly, maintaining a steady hover in the South American night. Your feet, secured in control pedals, shift slightly, altering the speed of your tail rotor, twisting your craft starboard. A valley lies ahead - low passage into enemy radar territory. You push your joystick forward, cycling through your weapons systems with a thumb button. Only feet above the shallow river, airspeed nearly 200 miles per hour, you swoop in for battle.

A scene from the latest action movie? A training simulator for the new army? No, it's only a home computer resting on a desk in a small Midwestern town, and you're just playing a game.

What parents jokingly (and fearfully) called an obsession for their children - mindless, countless hours glued to a television set, Nintendo controller in hand - has evolved into a sophisticated, intelligent adult hobby. With the continued evolution of the PC and the savvy marketing strategies of the game-publishing industry, the PC game market has blossomed. Entertainment marketing leaders realized years ago that we adults, admittedly or not, want to play, and that we want more than just jumping, shooting, and collecting power pills: We want a complete experience.

But why is it that on your machine the latest, superhyped game is a dud? Your system probably doesn't have the power to entertain. PC games have evolved to a level of sophistication not even dreamed of a few years ago. It has only been in the past three years or so that PC games have begun to eclipse the playability of the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo systems. Even as late as a year ago, if you really wanted to play a great, fluidly animated football game, you had to look to cartridge systems. Now, thankfully, all manner of simulations and adventures abound on the PC, providing enough depth to entertain intelligent adults for months on end.

The Price of Power

Of course, the cutting edge of entertainment software comes at a price. Nowhere in the PC software industry does a group of products ask more from its hardware. A typical flight simulator will push your computer to its limit, making it breathe a sigh of relief when it merely has to calculate the sales statistics for a company of 500 employees. The games hitting the market now require the most powerful processors, hefty chunks of RAM, and large tracts of hard disk real estate.

In addition to the hardware requirements, the PC game market is rich with support systems, from peripherals such as sound cards or voice recognition systems to advanced, programmable flight controllers and even entire cockpit systems.

So what is a person to do? What is the ultimate PC game system? If you're a serious hobbyist looking to set up a solid, long-lasting computer system, there are a few guideposts that will help you on your way. Follow these steps to build the ultimate game machine; then sit back and enjoy gaming as it was meant to be.

Get a Solid Foundation

First, you'll want a solid base on which to build. Your CPU and memory capabilities are of utmost importance. Look into a 486DX2/66 computer system. Currently, the Pentium chip is still too new to be an absolute safe bet, but a 486 will provide you with enough computing muscle to handle even the most demanding game programs.

To support your CPU, you'll need RAM and hard disk space - and the more of it, the better. Don't even consider settling for anything less than 4MB of RAM. Ideally, you'll need a system with 8MB-16MB. You can have more than 16MB, but if you do, you run the risk of running into addressing problems and the potential for program crashes. So think twice before heading off to buy 32MB.

Your hard disk is probably your most vital asset, so choose a brandname drive such as Quantum, Maxtor, Western Digital, or Seagate. As opposed to RAM, where too much might not be a good thing, hard drive space is never, ever a hindrance. Buy as large a drive as you can afford. Consider a 200MB hard drive as the smallest to accept, with 400MB or more and a fast access time (less than 18 ms) as your best bet, unless you can afford better,

Budget for the Best View

After storage, your monitor system is the most crucial component of your game system. Seek out the best non-interlaced monitor you can afford. One that's 15-17 inches is best, and make sure that it supports VESA standard modes. You'll also need a video card to control your monitor; there are plenty of good choices here. To shoot for the best, get a local-bus motherboard that supports the VL-Bus (see the November issue of COMPUTE for an overview of the various PC bus standards). This will allow your VL-compatible video card to operate at 33 MHz on an 80486/66 system (considerably faster than the 8-MHz ISA plain-vanilla video system used on most computers).

All computers come with a floppy drive, and a single 3 1/2-inch drive is becoming the standard. Because of this, a 5 1/4-inch drive is no longer a necessity. You will, however, want a CD-ROM drive to sit in that vacant drive bay. Many systems now come bundled with CD-ROM drives at very reasonable prices, but be sure you get one that has a fast access time (under 300 ms) and is Photo CD compatible.

Currently, CD-ROM drives offer three different methods of getting the disc into the drive. First is the removable case: Much like the CD-ROM's own jewel box, it consists of a plastic housing with a metal shutter into which you place the disc; you slide the entire unit into the drive. The second method features a lightweight tray that slides out from the drive on which you place the disc, much as you do with audio CD players. The third allows the entire drive to slide out, flipping open its lid so you can insert the CD-ROM. While the first method can be annoying, it's a good choice if you'll have children using your system. A youngster is likely to force and break one of the integrated trays, necessitating a costly repair. The caddies are only a few dollars each, and you can buy several in which to store your most-used CD-ROMs or your children's CD-ROMs.

Software Tricks Expand Your


In addition to getting the right hardware, you'll need some software tools to build a solid game platform. First on the list is Microsoft's DOS 6. This recent update of the ubiquitous operating system implements two features essential for serious gaming: memory management and the ability to set up single CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files to handle multiple configurations. Today's top game software products are notorious memory hogs, and they need as, much conventional memory (below 640K) as possible. DOS 6's MemMaker utility will optimize your startup files and give you the most memory possible. Also, many games require you to create a boot disk to provide enough memory for the game to run. DOS 6's ability to create multiple configurations, selectable by a menu at startup, is a true PC godsend. You may configure a default work setup, a game setup that uses EMS and one that doesn't, and so on.

If you're a power user who wants to play with the monster games, then MemMaker probably won't free enough memory. You'll need Quarterdeck's QEMM 7 memory manager utility, which not only will free up more than enough memory but will even optimize parts of your multiply configured system.

Finishing Touches

While the system I've been describing would make a great business system (yes, a game computer can also double as a true power user's workaday system), it's missing some of the essential components needed to transform it into an engine capable of simulating anything from jet flight to medieval sword combat. Without these finishing touches, your game machine will leave you cold.

Foremost of the trimmings are a sound card and a pair of quality speakers. For sound, consider a 16-bit card which features full Sound Blaster compatibility (still the standard for digitized effects and samples). Your best bets are either of the two 16-bit Sound Blaster cards or Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum 16-bit card. If you want even better sound, consider purchasing a Roland LAPC-1 or SCC-1 sound module to work in conjunction with your sound card. The result is unbelievable sound quality.

To get the most out of your sound system, you'll need self-powered speakers. Several companies now offer three-speaker systems (a subwoofer and two satellite speakers) specially designed for PC use, and Roland manufactures the MA-12 speaker system, which will put more punch on your desktop than is heard in most home, audio systems. Another good source of powered speakers is your local music shop. There, ask for help with self-powered studio monitors.

Finally, your system will need some form of input device other than your keyboard. Most systems now include a mouse, which is good for menu selection but not for serious gameplay. You'll need a joystick for that. If you're running a high-powered 80486 system, you'll be best served by a dedicated joystick controller card, such as the ones offered by CH Products or Thrustmaster. While many systems, as well as many sound cards, are supplied with integrated game ports, the ports are just not fast enough for smooth control on a speedy PC system.

For a basic joystick, none is better than the CH Flightstick. The quality and control will make you glad you spent the few extra dollars. For more advanced control options, especially if you enjoy flight or space simulators, you can choose from a wide array of options, such as the CH Flightstick Pro. CH Products also offers the Virtual Pilot, a smooth, hefty flight yoke (such as those found in Cessnas and other private planes) with a throttle control. The yoke is also excellent for driving games, but it's a little slow for fast-paced games such as X-Wing or the Wing Commander games.

Thrustmaster offers a complete system centered on its new Mark II weapons control system. The Mark II is a throttle control built for the left hand; it features seven customizable buttons. It's essentially a self-contained computer; you can write simple programs to completely configure the joystick/throttle system to the specific game you're playing. Thrustmaster also offers a flight control system in a military-style joystick featuring four buttons and a coolie hat at the top, enabling a flight sim jock to change the view with a simple flip of the thumb. For the ultimate in realism, you can get one of the company's rudder pedals for foot control of an airplane's rudder, enabling you to make such moves as supertight turns, slips, and precise targeting.

The ultimate game system is more than just a cutting-edge game machine; it's also an extremely powerful utilitarian computer, one which will give you years of use for under $3,000. Shop carefully, and if you're purchasing components separately, check with the manufacturers to assure compatibility.

A solid, high-performance PC system is the cornerstone of the exciting hobby of PC game playing, and it's a hobby that offers escape, excitement, challenge, and nearly endless variety. If you want to have serious fun, you need to have a serious system. Budget for these minimum ultimate game machine system requirements, and your personal computer will have the power to entertain.


* If you're going to set up your system with a hard disk compression program, be sure to leave a healthy allotment of uncompressed megabytes for gameplay. Many games don't take kindly to compression utilities.

* With DOS 6's multiple configuration option and the ability to create menus in your startup files, you can create a layered menu system to access your library of games, thus bypassing DOS's somewhat cryptic commands.

* If you're putting together your system a piece at a time, pay close attention to the IRQs and DMA specifications of CD-ROM controllers, game cards, and sound cards. Write the information on an index card and tape the card to the side of your monitor, since some installation programs require you to provide that information as part of the installation process.

* If you're a true game junkie, consider adding a removable hard drive to your ultimate system. You can back up your game directories on the disk and easily copy them back to your hard drive if you ever need to reinstall them.

* Buy the best joystick you can afford; a cheap one is just that - cheap. If you can, try several out before you buy. Life is too short to play with inferior equipment.

* Purchase a small light for your desk. Playing games by the monitor's light is great for effect, but fumbling for copy protection keywords or a certain key on the keyboard requires just a touch more illumination.

* Consider purchasing a joystick platform, either for your desk chair or desktop. Control will be much more ergonomic, and hence your gaming will be more fun.

* Also consider a truly comfortable chair (you don't want to feel like you're at the office, do you?). I use a canvas sling lawn chair; it may look odd, but it feels just right.